Closeup of white daffodils in the sunlight

The Gordian Knot of Lifestyle Happiness

Published 2012-04-13

I just finished reading Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent 4-part series “America’s Pedestrian Problem,” and he knocks it out of the park at the end with this:

Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer based in Florida, makes the point that the moment in many people’s lives when they have the most freedom is when they go on vacation. “It is during their precious vacation time, with increased freedom to choose, when people willingly walk, ride bicycles, and ride public transit.” People, argues Lockwood, want urban experiences, whether that means European cities, Disney World, or even cruise ships. Few people choose to spend that precious free time on an automotive tour of a sprawling exurb. (“Look, another big-box store!”) True, these may be, at heart, fantasy environments—Venice is as much an illusion in the modern world as Disney—but can’t some of what’s memorable and distinct about those environments be brought back home? Rather than go to where we can walk, why can’t we walk to where we want to go?

About six or seven years ago, a coworker took her family on a weeklong vacation to Sun River. Her family lived in one of the toney distant exurbs west of Portland, with a typically exurban car-dependent lifestyle. Anyway, one of the features of Sun River is that it has a completely separated system of paths that let you get wherever you want in the resort on a beach cruiser bicycle. Clearly kind of a novel experience for her.

My coworker — who was, OK, the senior partner at the agency — regaled me with the Awesomeness of Getting Around Everywhere on a Beach Cruiser, in front of our coworkers at an all-company meeting. I had already acquired the reputation of The Bikiest Guy in the Office. In fact, at that moment I think I was probably living entirely car-free. And she said, completely straight:

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could get around everywhere on a bike all the time?”

And I said, equally straight: “yes. Yes it is.”

And then everyone laughed.

I felt like I had cut the Gordian Knot of lifestyle happiness. My boss worked 80-hour weeks to get one week a year riding her bike in Sun River. I worked 40 hour weeks to get 52 weeks a year riding bikes in Portland.

This gets at the heart of Why I Live the Way I Do. Everything from where I live (Portland, Oregon) to how I get around (on my bicycle) to the neighborhood we live in (the middle of the damn forest). Very few weeks go by that I don’t have a day where I feel like I’m living on vacation. Just this morning I rode my bike through the forest over the hills, stopping several times for weirdly touristy purposes: to photograph a daffodil, to sit for a few minutes under the firs in Hoyt Arboretum, to buy fresh-baked rolls at a fancy-schmancy Pearl neighborhood bakery (to share with my coworkers).

People pay good money to visit Portland and do what I do for free every day.

I’ve written about this a lot before:

…if travel’s main goal is to let me relax or show me a pretty scene, it seems to me the problem is that my life is insufficiently fulfilling or my home is insufficiently worth living in. No amount of jetting to other locations will fix those problems.

I moved to Eugene for grad school [in] perhaps late July, 1995. I had saved up several thousand dollars from my summer work for the Kansas State Historical Society, so I got to live, for about a month, a life of restrained leisure. At the time I called it a "life vacation," but "temporary early retirement" might be more apt. A month spent bumming around Eugene (I didn't have a car), and reading. Every day opened crisp and clear; shivering in my sleeping bag (no bedding either). The cloudless days warmed predictably to about 90 degrees; purple night following golden day, one after the other.

We’ve a long gray wet spring that just can’t seem to quit. It’s easy to complain but — for me, anyway — easier to remember: this is why I moved here. I came here for the gray and wet and chilly. So mild, so green; so unlike the fierce wilting humid heat of my childhood summers. The coldgraywet makes me grateful for books, for bicycles, for mud and coffee and hiking boots, for empty beaches and quiet forest trails. It makes the beer taste better.

Sometimes someone — generally a person who would be inclined to ride a bike to work but regards it as “impossible” — will say that I’m lucky to have such an awesome commute. On the one hand: yes I am. On the other hand: I’ve been optimizing this commute for 16 years.

How do you live your life? Do most of your days feels like a vacation? Or do you endure an unpleasant existence for 340 days then run away from it for two weeks?


Vanderbilt’s point — and my meta-point — is about infrastructure and the way we build our cities & suburbs here in America. Given that people demonstrably want a life that’s like being on vacation all the time; and given that such a life is, you know, actually possible; why isn’t this the default pattern for American cities?